Language · Notes from West London

“Reporting anything unusual won’t hurt you”

We are often told that London is a global city. People come from all over the world, to visit and to set up home here. If you travel on our public transport system or walk our streets you will hear scores of languages being spoken. As a Londoner I am happy about all this. I am happy too with our public transport system. The tube network runs fine most of the time. There are more buses, going to more places, than at any other time in my life. My childhood enthusiasm for London Transport has not diminished much.

There is one thing about out transport system that bugs me, though, and it’s related to language. There are signs at tube stations, and on buses and trains that read as follows: “Reporting anything unusual won’t hurt you”. If you have spent time with people for whom English is not their first language, or people who don’t speak English very well, you will know that this kind of sentence is never going to work. It would be simpler to say: “Please report anything unusual”. The millions of people who visit our city each year will understand it more easily. Those of us who prefer clear instructions will be happier. If you spend time with people whose command of English is basic rather than expert you will not use phrases like “Reporting anything unusual won’t hurt you”. Nor will you begin a sentence with “I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was exactly …” If asked something straightforward like, “Is it cold today?” we know that “Yes” or “No” or “Not as cold as yesterday” are acceptable answers. We are unlikely to say, “I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was exactly warm”.

The tendency to make an oblique statement, rather than give clear instructions, is not new to London Transport, or TfL (Transport for London) as it is now. Back in the 1970s, when I first travelled by tube on my own, the signs by the doors read as follows: “Obstructing the doors causes delay and can be dangerous”. Well, thanks for the information. In later years the wording would change, to something more useful, an instruction such as, “Please do not obstruct the doors”, but in the 1970s we simply had a statement of fact: “Obstructing the doors causes delay and can be dangerous”. This served as an invitation to a certain type of boy to take out his penknife and scratch out a few letters, leaving us with “Obstruct the doors, cause delay and be dangerous”. I once saw a kid, who looked no older than 11, in the act of doing just this. It was the first act of vandalism I ever witnessed on the tube, and there haven’t been many others since then. He didn’t look like a young vandal in his school uniform. Thinking about it now, all these decades later, maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was just particular about language and wanted to leave us with some clear instructions rather than a vaguely informative sentence. The instructions might have been the opposite of what was originally intended, but at least they were clear.

 

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